by Paul Deines
Here’s the thing about adaptations: your odds are better with source material of middling quality. Consider Psycho: Alfred Hitchcock chose a trifle of a novel by Robert Bloch that was known but not adored. He contorted it freely, notably shifting the perspective in the first third from Norman Bates (as in the book) to Marion Crane. He adapted it without fear of offending anyone. In Francois Truffaut’s book-length interview with him, Hitchcock explains that he would never – no matter how much he was implored – direct an adaptation of Crime and Punishment because that story would always be Dostoyevsky’s, not his.
See also: No Country for Old Men, the Coen brothers’ stylish vision of one of Cormac McCarthy’s slightest books. Also, David Fincher’s adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. Having seen that film and read its source novel, I can honestly say I don’t love either. Still, the movie’s brash high-energy, maximum-flare ethos absolutely owns the material. Palahniuk’s authorial voice is in the script but the product is all Fincher, in part because Fight Club had only a cult following before the movie premiered.
Not so Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Published in 2012, this portrait of the worst modern marriage imaginable quickly became a popular lit phenom for its perverse story and shush-inducing twist. I think much of the excitement surrounding the book was that it transcended its genre lineage. It was a trashy beach read that touched on moments of poignancy, a pot boiler doubling as a potent parable of gender politics.
First – You have my word I shan’t reveal any of the surprises.
The story concerns Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy (Rosamund Pike) Dunne, a couple of New York transplants living in small-town Missouri. One day, Amy disappears without a trace, and Nick is suddenly a murder suspect. In a split narrative, we witness the media circus leaping on a missing-white-girl story and, in flashback, the souring of the Nick/Amy relationship. Gone Girl is a tense mousetrap, a satire on modern news media, a portrait of a diseased marriage. There are sly jabs at Eastern elitism and a noir-ish portrayal of recession-era Middle America.
David Fincher’s adaptation is mostly faithful (Flynn also penned the script), but there are certain issues she and Fincher cannot surmount. I don’t want this to be a review of a movie in opposition to its source, but one does inform the other. The book is largely epistolary, which means a lot of clunky voiceover narration. And that seismic twist means every major character has to act the cipher for much of the film. The novel lives in Nick and Amy’s minds, both so skewed by self-involvement and mutual disdain. Placing a camera between them forces an unhelpfully objective eye, no matter how many moody dark filters cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth uses.
But wait. Everyone loves this picture. Hell, I still enjoyed it. Even knowing the twists and feeling acutely the shortcomings, I had a great time.
Much of the pleasure comes from Rosamund Pike’s performance. Initially I wasn’t impressed. Pike is forced to play the enigma for a while, making the audience wonder how reliable she is. Only in the second half of the film do we see the full range of the performance. Amy is a glorious creation – an amalgam quite a bit of modern female angst – and probably impossible to play. Still, Pike’s very specific, very understated performance has grown in my estimation since I left the movie theater. Conversely, I’d say Ben Affleck as Nick is just shy of serviceable. His is a reactive role and also a bit of a blank slate. Then again, so was Edward Norton in Fight Club, but he found an arch sweet spot with that character. Not Affleck, though, who spends most of the film gape-jawed and wide-eyed.
The supporting players in Gone Girl entertain throughout. Carrie Coon and Kim Dickens play Nick’s twin sister and the lead detective on the case, respectively, and both radiate Midwestern pragmatism. They’re quite funny as spectators to the eerie, convoluted events. Neil Patrick Harris seems to be playing a more unsettling version of the character he plays in the Harold and Kumar films. His Desi (Amy’s ex) transports the movie to a nightmarish realm. Curiograph favorite Scoot MacNairy and former SNL-er Casey Wilson are also good as two hapless pawns.
The surprise triumph of Gone Girl, though, has to be Tyler Perry. Before this, I respected Perry more as a businessman than as an artist. He’s created an empire by catering to an audience – socially conservative, upper middle class and black – that Hollywood was wholly unaware of. I was pretty shocked by his casting (he appears not to have known who David Fincher was before this) and not especially hopeful. Playing the flashy lawyer-and-cable-news-legal-expert that Nick hires, Perry finds a perfect balance between empathy and self-important bombast. We’re amused by his peanut-gallery wisecracks while simultaneously trusting him to save Nick’s bacon. He’s thoroughly believable and engaging as a real human being. Who knew?
As for Fincher, there are moments of directorial voice in the film, such as the opening. The credits roll very quickly, so quickly we’re left feeling jangled, like the movie is already ahead of us. Fincher finds good bits of estranging specificity: an old board game, a cup of frozen yogurt, a king-sized Kit Kat bar, an iPad used like a deadbolt. He achieves a visual coup with a character showering away a layer of blood while delivering chilling dialogue. And the film has only one moment of shocking violence, but it is so immediate and discordantly graphic that it bears comparison with the blood spray in Caché. Outside of this, though, Fincher is on autopilot, all slick, dark photography and elegantly staged suspense. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s score is dutifully ominous.
In a recent Hollywood Prospectus round-table about Paul Thomas Anderson’s forthcoming film of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, Chris Ryan laments that adaptations are acts of colonization. The filmmaker supplants the author, as the Coens did with No Country for Old Men. I doubt Fincher has supplanted Flynn with Gone Girl, in part because of the final moment of film. I won’t spoil it except to say that while the novel ended with a chilling statement, the film ends with a dull question. It’d love to know the follow-up to the former but couldn’t care less about the answer to the latter.